Continuing on my adventure metaphor theme: has this ever happened to you? You have a great idea, it’s brilliant, it’s revolutionary, it’s a thing that will change the way that people think about other things. You work on it, sometimes feverishly. And get… great results! Then you think, “hey – wait a minute. If this is such a great idea and so simple, why hasn’t anyone ever thought of it before?” Pause about 10 minutes. “Ohhhhhh… no. They probably have.” A quick PubMed search turns up that seminal paper from 1995 demonstrating what you’ve just ‘discovered’. My diagram on how to do science highlights this point.
Anyway, why does this problem happen and how can you avoid it. I don’t have the answers but here are some general ideas.
For me this often happens because, in coming up with a brilliant new idea you’re pushing your knowledge and experience past it’s limits. In the early stages this means that your ideas are not very well formed; you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re thinking about and how it might relate to other things. And you don’t know the area you’re moving in to. So even doing a literature search at this point can be useless. I’ve had the situation where what I was searching for actually had been done before, but I didn’t know what to call it- so PubMed was useless.
After you’ve started to get some legs to the project, maybe doing a few tests to see if it would even work and getting positive results, excitement can take over. Then you just want to get through it and get the good results. Even then you may not be able to see your idea in a greater context to be able to know what to look for.
Finally, in the later stages of the project you can suffer from “investment blindness”. You may ignore the issue of searching the literature because what if you found that you weren’t doing something new? You’d put SO much work in to it, it would be unthinkable to have to abandon it all! And you’re on a roll- the good results are coming in, the implications are starting to fall into place, and the shape of the thing, the idea you’ve had, is starting to make itself clear. It’s generally at this point that that creeping, nagging, suspicious feeling comes up. Yep, you’re pretty sure somebody MUST have done this before.
Sometimes you’re wrong. Other times you’re right, but the spin you’ve put on things and the results you’ve gotten are actually novel and you can still get a story out (this is the most common actually). Then there are the times when there’s just nothing you can do. Your exact idea has been done somewhere else and published in Nature or Science or Cell, Nature, and Science.
I guess the idea is that you know your field so well that you can see the gaps and know when you are trying something new. That’s true of a number of different projects I’ve initiated. Generally, these are not the most interesting or groundbreaking. Sometimes they’re downright boring, small steps forward.
How can you prevent this? I guess by being aware of that three-step progression I outlined above, and trying at each step to do your literature searches with that in mind. Also, be pessimistic: always start from the point of view that someone has done it before. You’re then not surprised if they have done it, and you can start to evaluate how different and novel your approach is from theirs. Approaching your literature search from the point of view that you’re looking for something will make it more likely that you will find something.
Also, consult friends and colleagues who are working in similar areas. Sometimes they may know what you’re talking about – that is, that someone has already done and they know the name of what it is you’re doing. Sometimes they might just be able to provide you with a sounding board for your idea that will allow you to clarify your thoughts.
Above all, be flexible. If it turns out that someone has done it before read their paper carefully and any follow-on papers you can find. Look for the gaps and ask how what you’ve done can answer a critical question they’ve left open.
Dude. You want a beer or something? It’s hot work making it all the way up here.